BANGKOK Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra sought to defuse rising tension in Bangkok on Tuesday, saying she would accept any Senate decision on a political amnesty bill that could see the return of her convicted billionaire brother and former premier.
The bill, which critics say is a thinly veiled attempt to whitewash the crimes of Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a 2006 military coup, sailed through Thailand's lower house of parliament last week, provoking widespread public outrage, and is set to be debated in the Senate on Monday.
Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Bangkok since Friday in protest at the bill and more than 1,500 were on the streets again on Tuesday, threatening to disrupt months of relative calm in a country scarred by bloody unrest in 2010.
"My government will strive to serve the nation's interests. Regardless of the outcome of the Senate's decision...I will accept the result for the sake of reconciliation," a somber Yingluck said in a televised speech.
Her brother is one of Thailand's most polarizing figures. Without a pardon or amnesty, Thaksin would have to serve prison time if he returns to Thailand after being found guilty in absentia in 2008 of corruption.
More than 15,000 protesters, led by the opposition Democrat Party, seized the city's Democracy Monument area on Monday - a site that has played host to some of the worst rioting in Thailand over the years. Many wore black to mourn the death of democracy and spoke with anger against a bill they say condones corruption and violence.
The amnesty bill, if it comes into law, would also whitewash charges against Thaksin's enemies, including former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban, who were charged with murder for ordering a military crackdown on pro-Thaksin protesters in 2010.
"The risk of confrontation is on an upward trajectory as frustrations build," said Christian Lewis, a Southeast Asia specialist at political risk consultants Eurasia Group.
Yingluck called on all sides to unite and bring the country forward.
"It is time for Thais to choose a path that brings about unity without bias and emotion," she said.
Leaders of the protest movements in Bangkok said the speech was heavily nuanced, with some saying it signaled she would back down. Others said her government would push on with its support for the amnesty.
"Yingluck's words aroused suspicion as to her true intentions and will not change our stance. We will watch and observe what happens next," said former deputy prime minister Suthep.
Nikom Wairatpanich, a leading senator, vowed to shoot down the draft law next week.
"It should be dropped in order to ease mounting political tension and help the country to move forward," he said.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)